To an Athlete Dying Young

by A. E. Housman

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What are the poetic elements in "To an Athlete Dying Young" by A. E. Housman?

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One of the tragic fates in life is the death of young person in the prime of his life.  Most people want to live a long life and would not wish a premature death on anyone.  Yet, this is the impetus of the poem “To an Athlete Dying Young” by A. E. Housman.  The poet puts a different slant on dying too young.

Literary Elements

The setting of the poem is the funeral of a young runner who won a championship which pleased the entire town.

The narration is first person with one of the dead young man’s friends as the speaker.

The theme of the poem is the death of the speaker’s reflection on the young athlete’s death serving a positive purpose. 

The tone initially seems sad and mourning but as the poem progresses, it becomes celebratory for the early death of the boy.

Figurative language-


  • “the road all runners come…” This is the road to the cemetery.
  • “Townsman of a stiller town.” The young athlete is now a member of the graveyard or cemetery.


“It withers quicker than a rose.” This compares the life of the laurel plant to the life of the rose.

Poetic Devices

Alliteration- the repetition of consonants

  • “Today, the road all runners come…”
  • ‘Townsman of a stiller town…”
  • “Smart lad, to slip betimes away…”

The purpose of alliteration is to create a consistent pattern that catches the mind's eye and focuses attention.

Allusion-a reference to other piece of literature or mythological reference

And round that early-laurelled head

From Greek history, when the champion of a race or sporting event was crowned, the laurel wreath was the crown that was used.

Personification-giving an inanimate object or abstract idea human qualities

“Eyes the shady night has shut”-The night does not have the ability to shut anything

“After earth has stopped the ears”-The earth cannot stop the ears.

Apostrophe-the direct address of an inanimate object, absent person, or concept

The time you won your town the race

We chaired you through the market-place;

Man and boy stood cheering by,

And home we brought you shoulder-high.


This is a narrative poem.  It has seven quatrains which follow a set rhyme scheme.  The pattern is AABB. The quatrain divides into two couplets that provide a present and future or past meaning. In addition, each quatrain is one lone sentence.   Each line has eight syllables which when read aloud makes it feel like the pace of a runner. 


The narrator addresses the boy in these lines and throughout the poem as though he is still alive. He reminisces about the boy’s life, reassuring him that it is better to die young. The narrator speaks to the young man who has died.  He reminds him of the race that he won and how the entire town celebrated his victory.  Today, he is going down the path that all runners run.  The men are putting him to rest in the graveyard. 

The glory of an athlete does not last forever.  Most of the time, this success fades faster than it comes.  Now that he has died, he cannot lose that fame.  That is how he will always be remembered because the glory achieved can be more short-lived than the youth’s life. He feels the young athlete deserves compliments because by dying early he has escaped the possible unhappiness of witnessing his athletic records being broken by some other athlete in the future.

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